Category Archives: Robin Hood

Post 3: King John’s Palace and Sherwood Forest Up Close and Personal

My main reaction to the experience of participating in the Sherwood Forest Archaeological Field School at King John’s Palace in Clipstone, Nottinghamshire is this: medievalists not in the field of archaeology should participate in this field school or something like it. I cannot emphasize that enough. This opportunity was unique and eye-opening. It both reinforced my passion for the period as well as opened up new avenues of experience.
When I first arrived at the field school, our hearty band of nine volunteers introduced ourselves to each other. At my turn, I added that being on an archaeological excavation had been a bucket list item for many years. This is true. The archaeologists from Mercian Archaeological Services leading the site laughed when I said it was a bucket list item. Like any of us, they know the tedium and hard work that goes with their job, but, for me, I have been fascinated with archaeology for as long as I can remember. The act of uncovering even the tiniest of artifacts, piecing together the story of a location, people, or event, is not only an interesting endeavor, but, I feel, a necessary one in order to understand the past. I really would have been content at almost any site, but to participate in one in the heart of Sherwood Forest, the heart of the land that I’ve studied and dreamed about since I was a child? This was unbelievable.

King John’s Palace – the above ground part!

On our first day, Andy Gaunt of Mercian explained some of the history of King John’s Palace and the surrounding area. I have in a previous post mentioned the history of the Palace, particularly that six successive Plantagenet kings from Henry II to Edward II used and visited it. As with any other architectural structure, it was built up, neglected, added on to, and burned at regular intervals throughout its history. Much of the excavations have attempted to define the boundaries of the Palace land, particularly the early versus later ones. Our job on this field school was to excavate a trench on an embankment in order to begin the determination if it might be an outer wall of the early Palace. More on that later!

Our trench!

Part of Andy’s initial briefing was to talk about Sherwood Forest. It’s easy enough to say blithely – and I have frequently before this experience – that a medieval forest is not just trees. It is different, however, to see the landscape in context. They explained that the area around the Palace still looks very similar to what it did in the Middle Ages. The Palace would have been visible from any direction of approach. The small village of Clipstone (or Kings Clipstone as its known to distinguish it from the bigger, modern town of the same name) would have existed in a similar configuration as it does now.
But it certainly was and is not in the middle of what we typically call a forest. As Andy pointed out, the Sherwood Forest Visitor Center is this typical forest landscape, but the original Sherwood encompassed forest, heath, villages, buildings, hunting-scapes, etc. In reality, it was a huge area. Again this is a known fact, but to witness it – to see the land around the Palace where the kings and their guests would have stayed, the heaths in what is now called Sherwood Forest that would once have seen hunting parties riding across them, the ancient and veteran trees that have witnessed the comings and goings of history for centuries – is a different experience.

View from the Palace into the village


Heath in Sherwood Forest – typical hunting area


Deer in Sherwood Forest seen from King John’s Palace through the lens of a Total Station during a measured survey of the ruins – photo taken and posted by Mercian (click for original link)


Look closely – the indent of a medieval path still exists through the forest!


Popular impression of what Sherwood Forest was/is – trees!


Major Oak – famous Sherwood Forest tree – legendary hiding spot of Robin Hood

It reinforces and provides context for image after image described in medieval texts. No less importantly, it grounds those texts. Quite literally. It grounds them in the feel and presence of their own settings.
In the next couple of posts, I will give some detail about my other impressions of participating in the field school as well as some of the archaeology skills we learned.

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Post 2: Some Thoughts from James Wright’s A Palace for Our Kings (King John’s Palace)

In preparation for my Sherwood Forest Archaeological Training Field School, I have been doing a lot of reading. In particular, I was pleased that James Wright’s book A Palace for Our Kings: The History and Archaeology of a Medieval Royal Palace in the Heart of Sherwood Forest came out at the end of June. It is specifically about the history and excavation of King John’s Palace at Clipstone, which is were I will be located. While I haven’t completed reading it yet (too many deadlines this summer!) – I am hoping to do so on the plane ride over – there have been several aspects that have intrigued me that I will share here. Some are thoughts; some are simply a collection of quotations around a concept. Some I am reacquainting myself with, some are ideas I want to remember as I begin the excavation, and some are totally new and specific to Clipstone. There will be more as I continue to read!
Definition of Palace
Citing the Oxford English Dictionary, Wright defines a palace as ” a large and impressive building forming the official residence of a ruler, pope, archbishop, etc.,” which is what he calls a “pleasingly malleable definition” (5). Later, he provides what is perhaps a more inclusive and useful description: “Palaces were used in remarkably elastic fashion by the monarchs. Their purposes varied according to a wide variety of circumstances not just from king to king but even within individual reigns. The personal preferences of a king might lead to a combination of reasons to visit a particular palace which may have involved sport, recreation, councils, parliaments, building campaigns, impressing magnates and dignitaries, retreating from plague, or as a resting point on a longer journey” (17). The Palace at Clipstone was one of the more impressive and maintained residences over the course of several reigns. The scale of Clipstone “lifts it to an entirely different level [than manor houses]” as it “stretched to seven and a half acres of enclosed land” (6).
King Edwin
I found it intriguing that the area of Clipstone is associated in “strong local tradition” with the death of King Edwin of Northumbria. He died in the battle of Hatfield in 633, long before the palace at Clipstone was established: “The precise location of the battle is not fully understood, but placename evidence and the discovery of a large number of skeletons during the 1950s in an apparent mass-grave beneath foundations of the north wall of the twelfth century church at Cuckney, six miles to the north-west of Clipstone, has led to speculation that it may take place close by. Traditional stories persist that, prior to his burial at Whitby, the slain king was interred at nearby Edwinstowe and it is possible that King John’s 1205 foundation of St Edwin’s Chapel in Birklands may have been related to this” (19-20). Mercian Archaeological Services, who sponsors the field school I am attending, received permission and funding to fieldwalk the area of St. Edwin’s Chapel in 2014.
Kings Who Visited
There are as always several dates involved when considering the multi-century history of a location like Clipstone. I found it useful to mark when kings first visited the site (chart below). Although a manor had been there prior to the Norman invasion and there is evidence of repairs and construction on the site, Henry II in 1181 is considered the first documented royal visitor to “his palace and deer park” (27). It is interesting that he visited Clipstone after the wars with his sons, wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and other political leaders that they recruited. When he won, he set about essentially strengthening his hold over castles and forests, including Sherwood. Richard I first visited Clipstone immediately after he returned from his imprisonment. I like to imagine this as a much-needed respite before setting about punishing John and the other rebels. Wrights claims that it was to make sure Clipstone was in order for a later meeting with the Scottish king William the Lion (39). Citing Roger de Hoveden, Wright comments that Richard traveled to Clipstone and Sherwood, “which he had never seen before, and they pleased him greatly” (39). John seems only to have been at the palace, at least according to any remaining official records, nine days in total over seven visits (41), but he was in the area quite frequently so there could be many unrecorded visits as well. Henry III is the one who really took an interest in the architectural design of the Palace and ordered quite a bit of construction, particularly in response to the comfort of his queen Eleanor. Edward I held parliament at Clipstone in 1290, where he announced the plans for another Crusade (68). Edward II differed greatly than his predecessors in that he spent more time at each of the locations he visited, including Clipstone. I suspect this is due to the changing nature of centralized government and the perceived security of the times.
Year First Visited Clipstone
Henry II
Richard I
Henry III
Edward I
Edward II
Forest Law
Forest Law plays an essential role in the history of King John’s Palace as it was often used by the kings as a hunting refuge. Wright discusses this role and the perception of the Law (spoiler alert: it wasn’t good). I’ll be thinking more about this in relation to the Robin Hood legends, but for now:
  • “…monarchy could take advantage of the proximity of the great game reserves created in the royal forests such as Sherwood…The forest was a legal definition, associated with Forest Law. Perhaps one third of England was under this law during the twelfth century. The law was intended to protect the beasts of the chase and to encourage their welfare so that they would thrive and enable the kings to have vast stocks to hunt.” (9)
  • “The presence of Sherwood Forest was a key reason for the monarchy’s interest in Clipstone. Forest Law was introduced by the Normans to a land that was not used to such restrictions. Although there was a concept of the ownership of woodlands and the animals within them during the Saxon period, if those animals strayed into another man’s wood he was free to hunt them. Deer were not the preserve of the monarchy alone. The Norman idea of a forest set aside for the enjoyment of the king alone comes from the laws of Charlemagne and northern France.” (24-5)
  • “Forests were such a symbol of royal power and authority that Henry II reneged upon his wartime promise to reform the Forest Law…The law therefore became a stringent political tool and a survey of the forests in 1175 was carried out in person by the king…it was partly the tension caused by the extents of the forests that contributed to the outbreak of civil war between John and his barons…Magna Carta attempted to redress the balance but had no great effect…The Charter of the Forest in 1217 agreed to the removal of all land added to the forest by Henry II…but it was not until Henry III came of age that he ordered the enquiry of 1227 which fixed the extent of Sherwood so that the east of Nottinghamshire ceased to be forest.” (25)
  • “The penalties that could be imposed upon the local population at Clipstone for poaching the king’s deer, or even for cutting down the trees upon which the animals relied for their habitat, were severe….Although the 1217 Charter of the Forest removed the death penalty for poaching there were still a severe punishments [sic] for transgression…the Forest Law was so unpopular and controversial that even his [Henry II’s] own treasurer Richard Fitzneal wrote disapprovingly of it in the Dialogues de Scaccario: “The Forest has its own laws based, not on the common law of the realm, but on the arbitrary decision of the ruler; so that what is done in accordance with the law is not called ‘just’ without qualification but just according to forest law.” (27)

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Post 1: Sherwood Forest Archaeological Training Field School 2016

Exciting news! I have received the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation Fellowship to participate in the Sherwood Forest Archaeological Training Field School 2016. This program runs August 8th-12th. The Field School is organized by Mercian Archaeological Services CIC and is located at the ruins of King John’s Palace, Kings Clipstone, Sherwood Forest, in Nottinghamshire, England.

As the web site states, “This is not an ordinary field school – this is a ‘Training Field School’ where you will learn about all aspects of archaeological excavation and receive hands on training and learning from archaeological professionals in the heart of Sherwood Forest.”

The following, by way of an introduction to the project, is edited from my grant proposal…

The benefits of this project to myself, my students, my discipline, and my university fall into four categories: continuing education, pedagogy, community outreach, and future scholarship.

Continuing Education

In addition to the archaeological training, the site describes:

“As part of the field school attendees will have the opportunity to learn all about Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood, outlaws, foresters, the landscape of Sherwood Forest in medieval times, the forest law, courts, offences and judiciary, the Palace at Clipstone, monasteries, chapels and hermitages, hunting parks, Nottingham Castle, Sheriffs and much much more about life in Medieval Sherwood Forest.”

These particular themes are essential aspects of my research and teaching. This experience will provide practical knowledge and a unique perspective to complement my previous academic study.


The list above of topics covered in the Field School are ones that often are included in my courses. For instance, Robin Hood is a unit in my medieval literature study abroad course (link to blog post on that: “English Studies Abroad: A Gest of Robyn Hode“), Henry II and Richard I are kings I frequently include in historical background discussions, religious buildings and castles are prevalent settings for texts, forest law is key to histories (particularly with respect to royal rights), and courts and law in general provide context for understanding the medieval world view. In addition, in my courses with medieval content, I teach several texts that fall into the genre of romance, a significant body of work of the time period. The forest and hunting are ubiquitous aspects of these texts, and it is important to provide historical context to students about these unfamiliar settings. As the Field School site states, Mercian Archaeological Services CIC has “interpreted the surrounding lordship [around King John’s Palace] as a ‘designed’ medieval romantic hunting landscape.” In essence, this is the exact setting of these romance texts, and taking photos and videos of this example of landscape will be helpful for many students who find it hard to imagine it. I intend to video interview the experts at the site in order to create a compilation that I can share with my students.

Given that I teach not only medieval literature, but also early world literature, the Bible as literature, and classical mythology, archaeological sites are recurring elements of my courses. Much of what we read in these courses was found in such sites or is continuing to be found. We study the site at Troy, the location of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, the burial site at Sutton Hoo, the recent discovery of Richard III’s skeleton, among many others. In some courses, I require my students to visit the Fitchburg Art Museum, which has ancient artifact collections. Indeed, my courses are some of the few at Fitchburg State that provide exposure to archaeology as a method of studying the past.

More recently, I have started beginning my courses (particularly general education courses) with “why are we studying this subject” units, which I have found effective in helping students to think about the value of their courses and curriculum, rather than simply defaulting to thinking they are required to take certain subjects. For example, I begin my World Literature I course with a unit that includes readings and discussion related to the idea of present and historical deliberate destruction and appropriation of cultural heritage. In particular, we study the destruction by ISIS of archaeological sites in the Middle East and the protection of library collections in warzones by private citizens, many of which have direct connections to the texts we read in the course. By foregrounding the class with such a unit, students begin to understand the value of what we are studying (i.e. if cultural heritage – including literature – is targeted for destruction and is key to preserve, then what we study is important), and I have seen a marked increase in investment.

However, as I have not previously participated in an archaeological dig, my understanding of the workings of these sites and how artifacts are discovered and preserved is theoretical, which makes deepening our study of and fielding questions about these subjects difficult. In the past, I have invited working archaeologists as guest presenters to provide students more context, but having my own experience to impart will be far more consistently beneficial.

Community Outreach

Given my expertise in medieval topics and in Robin Hood in particular, I have been asked to present various times on the topic, including this one:

Participating in the Field School will provide a new dimension to such talks. I will especially volunteer to speak at local historical societies in addition to academic venues such as those above. I also am considering proposing a National Endowment for the Humanities summer program workshop on the topic of Robin Hood, which has the potential to bring scholars from around the country to Massachusetts and Fitchburg State.

Future Scholarship

Finally, in terms of my own personal research, I would like to pursue two separate approaches. The first article I would consider is the pedagogical benefits of such an experience, exploring the effect on teaching and learning early literature from being able to incorporate practical knowledge into courses. A separate article, also pedagogical, would be to consider incorporating archaeological field experience into study abroad courses. The second topic would be the applications of archaeological study to medieval literary studies, thinking about how the interaction with the physical affects our reading of the textual.

As a public scholar, I intend to write a series of day-by-day (pre-, during, and post-) blog posts on the academic, pedagogical, and personal aspects of the experience. I am co-founder of MassMedieval as well as The Lone Medievalist Project, so stay tuned for a blog series and photolog!


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English Studies Abroad: A Gest of Robyn Hode

Sherwood Forest

For anyone who has known me for any length of time, one fact quickly becomes apparent: I’m an avid Robin Hood fan. I have been for as long as I can remember. My first clear memory is watching Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of  Robin Hood, and my college dorm room was decorated with a poster of Flynn in his best heroic pose from the film – that poster now graces my dining room wall. I have an extensive collection of Robin Hood memorabilia that I’ve been amassing for over 20 years. All of this to say, I simply could not leave the outlaw off the syllabus in this course, even though we are not going to make it to Nottingham. This post only serves as a small snippet of an introduction to the character.

One of the first mentions of Robin Hood recorded is in William Langland’s fourteenth-century Piers Plowman. The site “Robin Hood: The Facts and the Fiction” contains a good online resource, as it pulls out from the Skeat version of the three parallel texts (A, B, and C) the passages related to the outlaw legend. The most significant is in Passus B.V in which the sin Sloth lists his shortcomings:

I can nouȝte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth,
But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf erle of Chestre,
Ac neither of owre lorde ne of owre lady the leste that euere was made. (B.V.401-3)

In a similar fashion as Saint Augustine who castigates his younger self at the beginning of the Confessions for loving to read the stories of Aeneas and Dido rather than to focus on God, Sloth here admits to knowing the stories of Robin Hood rather than any prayers or Christian stories. The implication is that the stories of Robin Hood are well-known popular tales at this time. In the guide to an exhibit at the Robbins Library in 2006-07, John Chandler writes, “Sloth’s familiarity with drinking songs about Robin Hood, but utter lack of knowledge of things spiritual, also reflects the concern of the Church for the souls of people who likely attended mass grudgingly, but could readily recite popular songs.” This echoes Augustine’s disgust with himself over the same issue. And, yet, we all know the popular stories continue to be “more fun.” As a side note, this particular line also plays a role in my interest in memory in Passus V of Piers Plowman. Directly afterwards Sloth talks about forgetting his responsibilities and what he owes to others, making forgetfulness a part of the sin he personifies. The Robin Hood line too speaks to memory in that he can remember what he wants to, just not what he “should.” Selective memory, we call it today.

It is this popularity that makes Robin Hood  a frequent presence in early printed books. For the first part of the week (which was, again, interrupted by snow – I’m beginning to feel that Mother Nature has a grudge), we read selections from the TEAMS Robin Hood and Other OutlawsIn particular, we read the “Early Ballads and Tales,” which mostly originated in the fifteenth century. For whom were these tales written? In their introduction to the text, editors Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren state:

The audience has been a matter of speculation. Some have thought it was close to the discontented peasantry who were central to the 1381 revolt (Hilton, 1976); another view saw the ballads as a set of general complaints from the lower gentry (Holt, 1989). Neither party has accounted for the lack of agrarian and tenurial issues, apart from the unusual episode of the knight in the Gest. Another commentator has seen the dynamic of the ballads in the struggle for power in towns themselves and the forest as a fantasy land of freedom (Tardif, 1983). As a result of these debates there now seems general agreement that the audience was not single, that it represented the social mobility of the late Middle Ages, and the myth was diffused across a wide variety of social groupings who were alive to the dangers of increasingly central authority, whether over town, village, or forest (Coss, 1985).

The “general agreement” that these tales indicate the “social mobility of the late Middle Ages” and that they appeal to a “wide variety of social groupings” seems like an accurate and useful way to think about them.

The early ballads are quite different from the Robin Hood that has evolved down to us today. Yet, at the same time, we see familiar characters and characteristics. Robin’s home in the greenwood (wherever that greenwood may be – Sherwood Forest or ones nearby) is fairly constant. One of my favorite memories is visiting the Major Oak in Sherwood (photo below). It is an incredibly peaceful location, and it is easy enough to imagine Robin and his merry men living a life of unabashed freedom under its branches.

Sherwood Forest

Also, his companion Little John is generally always nearby. The other familiar figures get added over time. Maid Marian, for instance, seems to be an addition when the tale is transformed into plays performed on May Day. Robin’s association with the spring is seen in the early ballads. In “Robin Hood and the Monk,” the tale begins, “Erly in a May mornyng” (l. 10). In “Robin Hood and the Potter,” the season is summer, yet no less descriptive of nature and its bounty:

In schomer, when the leves spryng,
The bloschoms on every bowe,
So merey doyt the berdys syng
Yn wodys merey now. (ll. 1-4)

It is no stretch to see how these stories, which laud the greenwood, the newness of leaves, and the singing of birds, became associated with the May Day celebrations. And it is no surprise that Robin needed a lady; thus, Marian was born.

Sherwood Forest

The outlaw himself is not the noble gentleman who only thinks of the poor and the plight of the common man. He is the common man in the ballads, described as a yeoman, and we see him frequently not showing what we have come to know as his trademark chivalrous mercy to his opponents. Indeed, many of the texts end with the death of the opponent. For instance, in “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Little John unceremoniously hauls the monk who betrayed his friend to the ground and kills him as another man Much kills the page with him simply to keep him quiet:

John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
For ferd lest he wolde tell. (ll. 203-6)

It is a bloody scene with little in the way of any kind of mercy for those who oppose the outlaw or his men. Robin Hood’s famous nobility and chivalrous nature are later inventions, added and manipulated for the needs of his various audiences throughout the centuries.

For the second part of the week, we turned away from the late medieval origins of Robin Hood and looked instead at the evolution of the legend and its continued popularity. To that end, we read Stephen Knight’s article “Remembering Robin Hood.” Also, while it feels a bit odd to do so, I assigned my students to listen to/watch a lecture I gave a couple of years ago on this very subject, entitled “Robin Hood, the Once and Future Hero.” The lecture is here for those interested in it:

My point in this lecture is that there are many qualities the Robin Hood legends possess that have kept them alive and vibrant for centuries. One of the major qualities is that greenwood I mentioned earlier. While there are challenges in being exiled from society, “outside” of the “law,” there is also freedom in not having to answer to authority, in seeing those who are corrupt receive the justice they deserve (but might not receive if protected by society). Robin is often depicted, in whatever incarnation, as freely roaming the woods, doing what he wants when he wants to do it, making his own law and living his own code. This is appealing to a variety of people, not the least of which would be children who sometimes chafe against adult authority, which explains why the legend became such a popular children’s story:

[H]is popularity with children and the relatively powerless continued long after the popular vogue of the other medieval romance survivals faded…[H]is identification with unsophisticated readers, especially children, during his extraordinary extended vogue may well explain, even though there is no categorical evidence, his peculiar place in the company of children. (Brockman 68)

Or, as Joseph Falaky Nagy, writes:

The narrative tradition about Robin Hood, which throve in folklore and the popular literature of England from the medieval period to the nineteenth century, reflects the worldwide fascination with the figure of the outlaw, the man who exists beyond human society and has adventures which would be impossible for normal members of society in their normal social environments. (198)

Robin Hood is in a position, that space between civilized and uncivilized, doing what we only think about doing, that speaks to those who, for one reason or another, seek an escape from limitations.

In the Weekly Activity for Robin Hood, the students were asked to pick a film featuring the character (alas, with the exception of the animated Disney version, as it is an “easy” choice) in order to think about its representation of the outlaw, particularly considering how it stacks up against the original tales. There are many lists available of Robin Hood films; one, for example, is on IMDb, if you feel like a marathon (or you could just raid my DVD collection!). What, might you ask, is my favorite? The Adventures of Robin Hood will always have a special place in my heart and, thus, is in a class of its own. Also, it tends to be the iconic image of the hero. The live-action Disney The Story of Robin Hood with Richard Todd is also one I return to often; I think the music makes it particularly special. Interestingly enough, in that one, Robin does not start off as a nobleman. The silent version with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., is incredible; the full version is available on YouTube, which I have included below. The athleticism of Fairbanks combined with its charming simplicity is, in a word, wonderful. (I also have a soft spot for it because I received as a gift several original props from the film. They are a centerpiece of my collection.) The most recent Robin Hood with Russell Crowe is disappointing on many levels. Although it attempts to return to the grittiness of the original tales, it fails to capture the lightness and freedom so inherent in the legend. It does, nonetheless, speak to the idea that the story is malleable and can be applied to different situations in various time periods (here, Magna Carta).

Class links:

Next week: we visit Oxford and Tolkien.


PS In my spare time (what little there is!), I am reading the King Raven trilogy by Stephen R. Lawhead. It reimagines the Robin Hood legend in Wales and sets it during the time of William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. It is a new take on the story, but, so far, it is working well, and I am far enough in that I can recommend it.


Brockman, B.A. “Children and the Audiences of Robin Hood.” South Atlantic Review 48.2 (1983): 67-83. Print.

Chandler, John H. Robin Hood: Development of a Popular Hero. Exhibition Guide. Robbins Library. University of Rochester, 2006-07. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. The Robin Hood Handbook: The Outlaw in History, Myth and LegendUnited Kingdom: Sutton, 2006. Print.

Fortunaso, Robert. “Robin Hood: The Facts and the Fiction.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

Holt, J.C. Robin Hood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993. Print.

Knight, Stephen. “Remembering Robin Hood.” European Journal of English Studies 10.2 (2006): 149-61. Print.

Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “The Paradoxes of Robin Hood.” Folklore 91.2 (1980): 198-210. Print.

Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. Eds. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren. TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.


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